Friday, September 21, 2007

Artwork Bombs

I can't believe the ridicule across the internets heaped upon Star Simpson, the MIT student accused of wearing a fake bomb to Logan Airport. In case you haven't heard about the story, read the Boston Globe account or The Tech (MIT student newspaper) account. (Disclaimer, I shared an office this summer with one of the contributors of the Tech account.)

Why do so many people have a difficult time believing that Star's shirt is Art? Why do they insist on calling it a fake bomb? I personally think that the story reflects badly upon the airport officials.

Instructions for making clothes embedded with LEDs are everywhere. Craft Zine showed how to make The Electric Tank Top. Make Zine shows HOW TO - Sew Smart DIY LED shirts and the Make Zine Blog also links to the Craft LED shirt project. See more LED shirts on the Make blog. Machine Project in LA even held a workshop for making DIY LED bracelets.

Take a look at the Electric Tank above. It sure looks like a work of art to me. I coveted one.

However, one look at the required materials picture and I decided I could live without one. ;-)

Anyway, let's look at what this poor girl is alleged to have done. (I spend more time with MIT grads than most people. My workplace is full of them. My spouse is an MIT alum. I like to think that I have some insight into the way they think.) She had been wearing this LED shirt she made for a couple of days; she is obviously very jazzed about the shirt. I would guess she had been receiving lots of positive reinforcement about her shirt around the MIT campus.

She went to the airport to pick up her boyfriend. She wore her cool new shirt. She wasn't sure where to go to meet him so she went up to an official and asked. Sounds really suspicious. She is focused on seeing her boyfriend again, perhaps she didn't catch the question from the official about her shirt. Airports are also very loud places.

She was holding something in her hand that was mistaken for plastic explosives but turned out to be play-doh. Have you ever heard of people who squish play-doh as a way to help them calm down and focus? I have. But maybe it is because I work around out of the ordinary people who do stuff like that. Or maybe it is because I have a 6 year old.

People wonder how she can not understand that she looks threatening. Look at her milieu. She is in Course VI for heavens sake. She is also very young. Like the school official said, she is atypical in a typical MIT way.

Step back and look at your assumptions. They might be wrong.

All right, the picture of her shirt in the Boston Globe shows she was not much of a craftswoman. However. the shirt is art according to Mary Anne Staniszewski's definition of art in the book, Believing is Seeing.


  1. OK, so it's art. Have you ever seen one of those pineapple type hand-grenades that are commonly found in novelty stores and catalogs? They could be considered art too, but I wouldn't walk into an airport with one.

    I would expect a little more common sense from an MIT student, but perhaps my expectations are just a little too artful.

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  3. It's all about common sense. It's about being aware of your surroundings and have the sense to figure out what is appropriate and what isn't. Wearing that t-shirt into an airport is the same as yelling "bomb!" in a crowded airport or "fire!" in a crowded theater, both of which are illegal.

    The person at the info booth had no way of knowing the history of the t-shirt. They just know that a person wearing a t-shirt, with what looked like a bomb on the shirt, and unknown putty-like substance in her hands. This person asked for the status of a cross-country flight and did not answer questions about the shirt.

    When taken together, the red lights, bells, whistles all start to blare in this post-9/11 era.

    It's all about context, taste and consideration.

    Sorry, Grace, but you are way off base on this one.

  4. You are absolutely right. She didn't show too much common sense. But she is a 19 year old. Why didn't her parents (or some other adult) show her how to comport herself at an airport?

    Have you ever traveled with a lab rat? Especially one that packed in a hurry? It is a total drag to go through airport security when the TSA discovers the kinds of tools that they carry around routinely.

  5. 19 years old is old enough to have common sense. Even if she isn't aware of the airport etiquette, she grew up in the post-Columbine high school days. She should know better.

    I don't buy the "she doesn't have common sense because she's brilliant, and she has more important things to think about." Nor do I blame her parents for her lack of awareness. She's 19. She's an adult now.

  6. 19 should be old enough for common sense, except that the social norms that she picked up in her peer group obviously didn't teach her airport etiquette.

    Columbine. Sigh. In some circles, the black coats were the victims. When I taught at U of Colorado, I had a memorable student from Columbine. This is before Littleton and Columbine hit the national news. I actually went around and asked CO natives about the place b/c of things the student said and did.

    I was not surprised when Columbine happened.

  7. Anonymous03:24

    This whole thing is an interesting, and not terribly flattering, social commentary, but I won't go there.

    Yes 19 should be old enough for common sense, but understanding that one sees things differently from much of the rest of the world is really a rather highly evolved social skill, much easier if you are already in "the rest of the world" and harder otherwise. Learning that the world is "not like me" is very difficult and not particularly comprehended at a very early age. I have to assume, given where she is at MIT, that her peer group and socialization have not been average and would still maintain that although a 19 year old is legally an adult, most 19 year olds aren't fully socially and emotionally mature. There is a lot of pressure on young people to be "adult" in a world that is far more complex than it was even a generation or two ago.

    Besides I think her idea was pretty cool and love those little LED tops. It looks like art to me.

    Doesn't this all tie in to the commentary on the gifted student and how difficult it is for the truly gifted to interact with the average?

    All in all, I think this episode is terribly sad.

  8. Grace,

    You get some agreement at

    Now that I've seen the picture I have to say that the device looks pretty innocuous. It seems that people should be more concerned with the items people are hiding than the ones they are displaying.

    If this device was so threatening, how'd she manage to ride the subway to Logan (it requires three trains from MIT). If anyone should be worried it would be there. The main special danger faced at an airport (and the reason for such high security) is the dangers involved when someone gets something onto a plane. Otherwise it's not that different from a subway or a shopping mall.


  9. That shirt looks *nothing* like a bomb. I would have worn it to an airport, and I'm 31 and pretty much aware of airport etiquette, since I fly quite often.

    I disagree that she "should have known better".


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